A strike, a chicken and an unlikely drag show on my last Bolivian bus journey, from Guayaramerin to Cobija

Ferry across the Rio Madre de Dios

I knew that my final bus journey through the Bolivian Amazon from Riberalta to Cobija was going to be an adventure, as it involves two river crossings, but the onboard drag show came as quite a surprise. I had arrived in Guayaramerin after 5 blissful days on a cargo boat from Trinidad only to find myself in the middle of an all out stoppage. 

Boat repairs at the port in Riberalta

I had planned to cross the river to the twin Brazilian town of Guajara-Mirim, but a local strike protesting against the high energy costs in the region meant that everything was at a standstill. And I mean everything. Ferries, buses, immigration control, even shops and restaurants, everything was shut. It had been going on for five days, and I was dreading being stranded there indefinitely, but luckily at lunchtime the strike was lifted and I was able to cross for the day to visit Brazil to have an açaí na tigela, one of my favourite fruits. 

By this time, though, I had also discovered that there were no direct buses to Rio Branco in Brazil, so I decided to return to Bolivia and head west to Cobija and cross into Brazil from there. In fact, it would be a shorter and more interesting (and, as it turned out, rather surprising) journey. My full return to Brazil would have to wait a few more days.

Street in Riberalta

The following morning I caught a bus to Riberalta, a hot, humid and dusty riverside town. In the wilting afternoon heat I had just enough energy to get my laundry done at an open air place in a field, where many women were washing by hand in sinks. It reminded me of the dhobi ghats in India. Fermina did a great job and my clothes were ready in a few hours. 

Evening paseo in the town square in Riberalta

I had dinner in the main square and watched the locals doing laps around the plaza which is apparently the thing to do here. Years ago people would have been just strolling in a paseo, but nowadays it’s clearly necessary to display one’s wealth and show you own a motorbike or large car. It seemed like a colossal waste of petrol and money to me, especially offensive when there are barefoot children in rags begging at tables. 

Ferry across the Rio Beni, although a bridge is being built

The most recent editions of guidebooks warn that the journey from Riberalta to Cobija in Pando province can take over 12 hours, so I was pleased to discover that we would do it in 9. It proved to be a memorable trip. The Amazon scenery was impressive and we had to cross two rivers by ferry, the Beni and the Madre de Dios. 

Ferry across the Rio Madre de Dios

The bus was more decrepit than any so far, but I’ve learned one thing about bus travel in Bolivia. The seats may be broken, the curtains ripped, the windows filthy, the air conditioning non-functioning, but one thing will always be in perfect working order: the radio, blasting out at full volume some usually really awful music. But I didn’t care, because the journey was so fascinating. Among the passengers was a boy clutching a live chicken, whether a pet or lunch I never got to discover.


On every bus in Bolivia somebody will get on and try and sell you something. It’s how they make a living. I’m not just talking about food vendors, but people selling sweets, cosmetics and jewellery. Two hours outside Cobija in Pando Department in the middle of nowhere a guy in half drag got on and did a cabaret act and magic tricks as a prelude to selling some chocolate cakes. In a remote part of the Amazon on a dusty, red dirt, unpaved road it was one of the most incongruous sights I’ve ever seen. A kind of Priscilla, Queen of the Amazon. 

Arriving in Pando Department

In Cobija I took my last moto taxi in Bolivia to the border with Brazil where you can cross to the remote town of Brasileia. I completed exit formalities at Bolivian immigration, then started to cross the bridge. There’s something quite fascinating about walking across borders on foot, since for a short while you’re effectively in no man’s land. I began to reflect on the amazing seven weeks I’d spent in Bolivia and the extraordinary diversity of the landscape, from the high altiplano of the Andes to the sweltering heat of the Amazon. But the bridge was short and in no time at all, I was in Brazil.

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Five days by cargo boat down the Rio Mamore, from Trinidad to Guayaramerin in the Bolivian Amazon

Dawn on the Rio Mamore

It began badly. I missed the boat. In 6 weeks of travelling by bus in Bolivia I had never left on time, but last Saturday I was left stranded at the port. The epic boat trip down the Rio Mamore was something I’d been looking forward to for weeks and I’d planned part of my trip around it. From the destination port of Guayaramerin I could cross into Brazil and from there fly back to São Paulo, but now it all looked in jeopardy. 

Another dawn

I had arrived in Trinidad late Thursday night after another long bus journey from Santa Cruz and the following morning I jumped on a moto taxi to Puerto Almacen to try and organise the trip. There are no passenger boats, you have to speak directly to the Capitanía in the port and find out what boats are leaving. I was in luck. The Boldito was scheduled to head downriver the next day. 

The Boldito

I spoke to captain Alfredo who told me I would even have a small cabin. I just needed to buy a mosquito net and some provisions. It would cost only £30 for four nights, including all meals, so I knew it would be extremely basic, but that was fine, I was going for the scenery not on board entertainment. Alfredo told me they were still loading up the cargo, 35,000 litres of diesel, but they would be setting off the following day, so I should arrive at 1pm.

Yet another dawn

The rest of the day and Saturday morning were spent buying the net and extra food and water and exploring the laid-back town of Trinidad. After an early lunch on Saturday I arrived at the port at 12.45 only to discover the Boldito had finished loading early and so had already departed. But I had one last chance. The lorry drivers at the port told me the boat would be passing Loma Suarez, another port further north, just after 2pm, so if I caught another taxi I might just make it. Someone rang the captain telling him I was on my way and I rushed off in a cab. Well, actually, it was a flatbed truck pulled by a motorbike, a kind of rickshaw, but it got me there in time. 

Taking it easy

On the banks of the Rio Ibare I waited and waited. After about two hours sitting in sweltering heat I was ready to give up, but then the Boldito appeared round the bend in the river. However, it was clear it wasn’t going to stop. They sent a crew member to the shore in a small motor boat to pick me up. Finally, I was on board and I met my two fellow passengers, Johanna and Peter from Germany. My cabin was in fact being used as a store room, but it was fine. Just after dusk on the first day we finally entered the Rio Mamore and began the long journey north.

Birds on the Rio Mamore

It’s surprising how quickly the days passed, doing very little apart from reading and watching the river banks glide past. We saw many white herons, a caiman and some tantalising glimpses of the noses of pink dolphins. Sunrises and sunsets were particularly beautiful, when the colours changed dramatically, the temperatures were lower and flocks of birds swooped low over the water or high above the trees on their way to and from their nests.

Puerto Siles

We made only one stop, at a tiny port, called Puerto Siles, for Alfredo to complete some paperwork. The captain, who has been doing this run for 10 years, told me all the diesel was bound for Riberalta and Cobija further west. Close to another village a local boat pulled up alongside and the crew delivered some sacks of rice and at some point we took delivery of a pig.

Sunset on the Rio Mamore

Johanna and Peter practised their juggling skills. My party trick was banging my head on door lintels, rusting pipes and overhead steel vents, something I did at least a dozen times a day. Whenever I go on boats, I’m somehow always surprised that they are never built with someone over six feet tall in mind. Conditions and food were basic, but it was incredibly relaxing and I was quite sad when on day five, Wednesday morning, we pulled into the port at Guayaramerin. 

Another sunset

But I was now excited to get back to Brazil which I could see across the river. Unfortunately, Guayaramerin was hit by a strike and as we got off the boat we soon realised that none of us were going anywhere. All ferries and buses were suspended. Five wonderful days to get to Brazil by boat and there it was. So tantalisingly close and yet so far.

The other side of Bolivia – cloud forests, convents and a Che Guevara pilgrimage – in the Oriente

Llama
The llamas must have good agents – they get all the good press. There they are on the front covers of the guidebooks and all the tourist literature, along with the volcanoes, brightly coloured rugs and shawls and Aymaran women sporting bowler hats. But there’s much more to Bolivia than alpacas and the altiplano, as I discovered when I set off to explore the east of the country (The Oriente) where Che Guevara finally met his end at the hands of the Bolivian army (with a little help from the Americans). 
Che mural at the Lavanderia, Vallegrande

 My first stop east was the town of Cochabamba. I’d booked a day bus with TransCopacabana and had high hopes for a luxury bus. In adjacent bays stood double-deckers with on board toilets and aircon. Then I found mine. As so often happens, I seemed to have booked the most decrepit vehicle possible, broken seats, no aircon, no loo with a 7 or 8 hour journey to look forward to. Despite being rushed onto the bus, we left an hour late. I’ve discovered that bus departure times in Bolivia are merely an expression of vague hope. In fact it’s only on the big intercity routes that you have buses (flotas) with set times. In the smaller places you are dependent on shared taxis and vans (trufis) and small buses (micros) which often only leave when full.
Plaza 14 de septiembre, Cochabamba
Cochabamba sits at 2500 metres above sea level and has a Mediterranean feel to it, very different to La Paz. There’s not a huge amount to do, but there’s a beautiful colonial square and the fascinating Convento de Santa Teresa where you can take a guided tour. For centuries nuns lived here all their life with no contact with the outside world whatsoever. I also went to La Cancha, Bolivia’s biggest and most frenetic market. It seemed as if you could buy just about anything there and it was easy to get lost. I did twice! 
Santa Cruz
Further east way down in the lowlands lies Santa Cruz, where it’s supposed to be hot and steamy, but the cold front that’s been following me around made it there too. It’s a city that moves to a very different beat. It’s an agricultural heartland and its inhabitants are generally rich landowners who do not support the president, Evo Morales. Everywhere you go in the highlands, Evo’s power base, you see graffiti proclaiming “Evo Si” – Evo Yes. Here you can see graffiti encouraging people to vote no in the recent referendum in which Evo asked the people to support a change in the constitution which would have allowed him to stand for a fourth term.

Samaipata

A few hours away in the hills outside Santa Cruz is Samaipata, a great little village with lots of restaurants run by expats from France, Spain, Canada and Brazil, which means you can finally get some decent food and eat something other than fried chicken. On the outskirts of town is El Fuerte, sometimes billed as Bolivia’s Machu Picchu. It isn’t, of course, but it’s an intriguing site all the same. It’s basically a huge rock with animals carved into it and ceremonial shrines. 
Giant ferns, Parque Nacional Amboro

I had a wet, muddy but rewarding hike into the cloud forest of Parque Nacional Amboro which is just 40 minutes away. It lived up to its name by being completely shrouded in mist and cloud, so there were no views to be had of the surrounding mountains, but it was very atmospheric and the giant ferns were impressive. 
Street in Vallegrande

My last stop in the Oriente was Vallegrande, where in 1967 Che Guevara’s corpse was laid out in a hospital laundry room to show the world he had been killed. I took a trufi from Samaipata. The driver was driving with one hand and using the other to stuff coca leaves in his mouth. At first when you arrive in Bolivia it looks like a lot of men are suffering from inflamed molars, but in fact their cheek is full  of coca leaves. To me the taste is very bitter, but the tea is good and really helps with altitude sickness.

The Lavanderia where Che’s body was laid out

In Vallegrande I visited the hospital, the Che museum and the mausoleum which marks the site where the remains of Che and six of his comrades were finally unearthed in 1997 after one of the Bolivian soldiers involved in the secret burial finally revealed the location. All the sites are quite poignant and moving. The laundry room is covered in graffiti, the museum has a book of remembrance still in use and the gardens of the mausoleum have trees planted by his brother, a daughter and other heroes of the Cuban Revolution. 

Che’s unmarked grave now housed in the mausoleum

Whatever your opinion of Che, it’s a fascinating look back at history and his total dedication to the revolution is undeniable. Even after almost 50 years he still exerts an influence on many people. My guide told me he was 20 when the body was disinterred and from that moment his curiosity was aroused. The sites are tranquil and the countryside surrounding Vallegrande is beautiful. It provided the perfect conclusion to my Eastern odyssey.

Stepping back in time in the Jesuit Missions of Chiquitania, Eastern Bolivia

San Jose de Chiquitos

If you’ve ever dreamed of wandering around a UNESCO World Heritage site and having the place entirely to yourself, then make a beeline to the Jesuit Missions of Chiquitania in Eastern Bolivia. In the five days I spent touring the region I didn’t see a single other tourist. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the sun for four days either.

San Jose de Chiquitos
300 hundred years ago the Jesuits arrived in this area with the aim of converting the locals to Catholicism. Their mission was supported initially by the Spanish crown as it was a way of subduing the ethnic people without resorting to violence. The Jesuits taught their new-found followers skills in construction, carpentry and music and together they built some magnificent churches. As the film “The Mission” showed, however, the Jesuits were eventually thrown out of South America and the churches collapsed into ruin.

San Miguel de Velasco

In neighbouring Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay most of the sites are in ruins, but in Bolivia the towns surrounding the churches thrive and the churches themselves were painstakingly restored in the 1970s and 1980s. The facades are richly decorated and the interiors house magnificent altars and statues. 

San Miguel de Velasco
Even if, like me, you’re not religious, these sites still impress with their sense of history and transport you back in time. The towns are set out in the usual grid system with a huge plaza at the centre. An interesting stylistic feature of the streets is that the wooden roofs of the buildings hang out across the pavements, giving protection from the sun and rain. Most of the streets are still unpaved and consist of red earth. Basic shops operate out of tiny premises and cobblers sit in the streets performing their work out in the open.

San Miguel
Another curious feature of the area is the presence of Mennonites, a Dutch Protestant sect that fled persecution in Europe and found refuge here. Like the Amish, they generally reject modern life and keep to themselves. I wondered how difficult it would be to find them. In fact, they found me on my first bus journey from Santa Cruz de la Sierra to San José de Chiquitos, when a man and his three children got on, all dressed in dungarees and with golden hair, as if they’d stepped out of a fairy story.

Concepcion
I travelled north from San José to San Ignacio, visiting San Miguel from there, and then onto Concepción which I found the nicest. On the downside, there’s not much to do apart from visit the churches so it means there’s a lot of travelling and only a little actual sightseeing. There are some waterfalls and lakes in the area, but unfortunately for me these weren’t an option as another annoying cold front moved in, making it unpleasant even sitting in the main square. In fact, I feel like this cold front is following me around, like a rain cloud above a cartoon character.

Concepcion
The towns in the Missions Circuit are conveniently grouped in a circle. However, the Bolivian transport system makes it as inconvenient as possible to get around. Many private companies all operate a variety of buses, minivans and taxis so getting impartial information is not easy, even if you speak Spanish. The good news, though, is that the roads are slowly being improved, reducing journey times considerably. However, as access improves, the crowds will increase, so go now if you want to have the place to yourself, as I did. 

Concepcion

Enjoying the spectacular views in La Paz

La Paz
Flying into La Paz from the jungle is one of the great flights you can take in Latin America. In 40 minutes you go from verdant green with chocolate brown rivers snaking their way through the dense jungle below to the stark barren mountains of the Andes. But when I landed at the airport in El Alto I had to face another classic South American experience – the political demonstration. I walked across to the airport bus only to be told that all routes down to the city of La Paz were blockaded.
Plaza Murillo
At the airport I teamed up with some savvy locals and we managed to persuade a taxi driver to find a way through to the south zone, from where, I was told, I could get a local bus up to the historic centre where I was staying. Now, according to the guidebooks, you should only ever take official radio taxis. Lack of regulation here means that anyone can paint the word taxi on the side of their car and they’re in business. Unfortunately, that business can also mean kidnapping tourists and keeping them hostage for several days while they empty your bank account. Luckily, I made it to my hotel with all my luggage and money intact. 

Cloisters in the San Francisco Church

La Paz is not an immediately attractive city, but there’s no denying it has a spectacular setting. It sits in a bowl surrounded by mountains and volcanoes at a height of 3660 metres. The sprawling new city of El Alto where the airport is and which is inhabited primarily by people of Aymaran ethnicity, spreads over the rim of the bowl onto the altiplano. Whenever protestors want to make their voice heard, it’s relatively easy to block off all access and effectively paralyse the city.

Calle Jaen

There is some great colonial architecture and some good museums around Plaza Murillo and Calle Jaen and it’s also a fascinating place to people-watch. Local Aymaran women walk around in traditional clothes and hats often with huge bundles on their backs containing goods for sale or children. They trip up and down the steep narrow roads undaunted by the altitude, while recently-arrived tourists huff and puff. 

Street, La Paz

But really in La Paz it’s all about the views. There’s a relatively new cable car system linking various places in La Paz with El Alto which offer tremendous views. It’s not really a tourist attraction, but it’s cheap and fun. You can see below the unfinished houses with exposed red bricks and roofs of corrugated iron. Apparently, if your house remains unfinished, you’re exempt from taxes.

Red line on the cable car

You can bike down the so-called Death Road to Coroico, although I’m not great with heights so I was happy with the bus ride down. Even that was hair-raising enough. One of the best things I did was to take a trip to Cerro Chacaltaya. The only way to get there is by organised tour and I really hate being herded around in a minibus, so I was initially reluctant. However, despite the bus being late to pick me up, it was still a great trip. 

View from Chacaltaya

The bus takes you up another stomach-churning road to a refuge from where you can climb and scramble to the top of the mountain. Every step is hard-going due to the thinness of the air and you have to take frequent rests, but the views from the top were out of this world. At 5395m above sea level it’s the highest I’ve ever climbed.


Like many big cities, La Paz offers up its charms slowly and the longer you stay here, the more you appreciate it. However, winter is now here and the nights have turned freezing, so I’m looking forward to making my way down into the lowlands tomorrow.

Viewing the wildlife along the rivers of the Pampas del Yacuma

Sunset in the Pampas

I’m not a big fan of wellington boots, but there I was, wading ankle-deep through the swamp waters of the Pampas del Yacuma. Not only that, but we were searching for anacondas. This is their natural habitat. Luckily, our guide failed to find any. It’s the end of the rainy season, which means the water levels are still high, giving the snakes plenty of space to hide.
Me in my wellies
When I arrived in Rurrenabaque after my overland jungle trip from La Paz, it was gloriously hot. This river town on the Rio Beni is small and laid-back and has low rise buildings. Surprisingly, there is an outpost of the Bolivian navy here with a command centre right next to my hotel. In fact, it’s surprising that Bolivia even has a navy, given that it has no coastal access. But the river here does go all the way to the border with Brazil, so if Brazil decides to invade, I guess they’re prepared. 

The best way through the swamp is by boat

Jungle mountains loom to the south of the town. To the north lies a different ecosystem, that of the Pampas, where the dense jungle gives way to open grasslands and swamps. Cattle farming is the main activity here, but tourism is also important. And unlike the jungle, you are almost guaranteed sightings of wildlife. This time I signed up for the easier option of staying in a lodge for two nights with Mashaquipe, a community-based organisation. It’s not the cheapest operator around, but it was definitely good value for money.

Howler monkeys

On the three-hour drive to the lodge based on the Rio Yacuma we saw a sloth, some caiman, a rhea (similar to an ostrich) and many birds. After lunch on the first day we had the opportunity to swim with the river dolphins, but for some reason they seemed shy and uninterested. Occasionally, they bobbed up in the distance, but didn’t want to play.

A sloth

The next few days passed peacefully by on boat trips along the river, observing howler monkeys, capybara (a kind of huge rodent), caiman at night and many different species of birds. The sunsets were also out of this world.

Squirrel monkey

The rain set in as we were leaving the lodge and the dirt road back to Rurrenabaque was churned up with mud. I never expected to be cold in the jungle. It’s supposed to be hot, humid and sweaty, right? But I’ve been wearing my fleece and boots and the owner of the Hotel Oriental here on Rurrenabaque’s main square handed out blankets. Apparently a cold front occasionally comes in bringing low temperatures and rain. And that’s happened just as I’d planned a few relaxing days swinging in a hammock, recovering from my expeditions to the jungle and pampas.

Dusk in the Pampas

The sun came out briefly, so I hopped on a moto taxi up to Oscar’s Bar which has a swimming pool and panoramic views of Rurrenabaque. But then the clouds appeared again and the temperature dropped. Although it’s a great place to relax with traveller-friendly cafes, I get the impression that a certain level of lawlessness lurks beneath. For example, I noticed that many vehicles don’t have licence plates. Apparently, these are all stolen and the local police seem to turn a blind eye – for a fee I’m sure. But when I’m back in bustling La Paz tomorrow, I know I’m going to miss the relaxed pace of the jungle.

Into the jungle, an overland journey from La Paz to Rurrenabaque

On the Rio Beni

There are two practical ways to get from La Paz to Rurrenabaque in the jungle. You can fly which takes about 40 minutes or, if you’re crazy, you can take a bus which takes about 20 hours depending on the weather. If you’re really crazy, there’s a third option by road and river which takes 4 days. I decided on the really crazy route. But on the second day, when clouds of mosquitoes descended on the campsite, I began to have second thoughts.

All aboard the Commander bus
The adventure began at the bus station in La Paz. I had organised the expedition through Deep Rainforest and Augusto, the agency representative, was busy buying tickets for me and my travelling companions for a bus which would take us from the altiplano to Guanay, a river port thousands of metres down in the Yungas, the lowlands. Slightly alarmingly, the bus was painted with army motifs, including a bare-chested soldier clutching a machine gun. But we weren’t going to war, we were about to travel along stomach-churning roads, with spectacular views, but terrifying drops into chasms below.
The descent to Coroico
Augusto told us we probably wouldn’t be having any hot food and insisted on buying what he called a survival kit, which basically consisted of bags of nuts, crisps and junk food. In fact we didn’t leave for over an hour. Vendors of much more delicious food, such as empanadas, were doing a brisk trade. Less so the man with a clutch of brightly-coloured brooms which are not really must- have items when you’re about to embark on a long distance bus journey. 

The road to Guanay
Coroico is a town which stands halfway along the route. The old road, quaintly known as the Death Road, is now closed and used only by agencies who guide intrepid (foolhardy?) cyclists down to Coroico. I was happy we would be taking the new road. Only I soon discovered this is probably now the second most dangerous road in the world. We began by ascending above the clouds with panpipe music blaring appropriately out of the crackly speakers, past misty high altitude lakes and llamas, then we began our descent. As the clouds disappeared above us, the vegetation became more luxuriant and the temperature started to rise. Small farms clung to the precipitous hillsides.
Gold prospectors along the Rio Kaka

Beyond Coroico the condition of the road worsened as we plunged down a huge valley right to the floor, crossed a rickety bridge and began the ascent up the other side. I looked out of the window and was horrified as I saw the crazy driver was on the wrong side of the road. But then I realised that the lane direction was reversed to help safety. Since the drop was on the left, vehicles drove on the left so that the driver was seated as close to the edge as possible. When the gap between the bus and cliff is literally centimetres, this is obviously vital! 

En route
Night had fallen when we arrived safely in Guanay. Our local, guide, Achilles, took us to a run down and grimy hostel catering for the local miners. We were all too tired to do much more than go to sleep and prepare ourselves for the river adventure that lay ahead the next day. 

After breakfast by the river, during which a local mining engineer chatted to us enthusiastically about the gold prospects along the banks, we finally set off with Achilles, a boat driver, and another helper whom Achilles called simply Loco (Crazy Guy). There was a lot of digging along the river and many men prospecting. It had the weird feel of the American West during the Gold Rush. We stopped for lunch in the mining town of Mayaya, then pushed on to pitch our tents above the river just outside the Parque Nacional Madidi. It was then that, as soon as the boat stopped moving, the swarms of mosquitoes appeared, as if out of nowhere, buzzing around our ears and heads. We sprayed the repellent around as if it were insecticide.  

Lunch stop in Mayaya
The next day we stopped off at some glorious clear waterfalls for a refreshing shower and lunched on fresh surubi fish which the boat crew had caught the previous evening. We continued on our way past dense jungle and no other tourists. This was remote, virgin rainforest that you cannot see on trips out of Rurrenabaque. It’s too difficult to spot animals, but the scenery is impressive and it was superbly relaxing just sitting on the boat, watching the jungle glide by and enjoying the peace and quiet. 

The cliff where macaws nest
On the second night we camped at an idyllic spot opposite a huge cliff where macaws nested. Idyllic, that is, until the mosquitoes swarmed in again as dusk set in. We retreated to our tents and refused to emerge until daylight. The next day we visited a local community an hour’s walk away into the jungle. We met a couple and their 9 children. Conditions were extremely basic, but there was a school.

Macaws
We had lunch on the boat just before reaching the small town of Rurrenabque. It was an epic trip and we arrived happy that we’d done it, but happy we had now arrived and just a little self-satisfied that we had not taken the easy flying option. It’s a great way to get here, but one thing is for sure, I’ll be flying back to La Paz.